WILDWOOD — Panic and fear struck a group of firefighters and their families Saturday night when a multi-level deck at the condominium they were staying in collapsed on them.
Branchville (Sussex County) Volunteer Fire Company Chief Jon Frato was among those injured and transported to area medical facilities after a two-story balcony collapsed off the front side of a multi-family condo on East Baker Avenue.
Frato described the situation as “chaos,” when the deck above him and a small group of people collapsed on top of them.
“It was traumatic,” he said. “Everybody was just screaming and yelling.”
Frato was released from the hospital Sunday with a cast on his ankle. He said other members of the all-volunteer department, friends and family who were involved are in various stages of recovery.
Wildwood Fire Chief Daniel Speigel said at least 18 people, including one who was airlifted to a regional trauma center, were taken to local hospitals following the collapse.
Cape May Regional Health System spokeswoman Susan Staeger said 19 patients were treated and released, including three children.
Three people were treated at the Trauma Unit at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, City Campus in Atlantic City, said a spokesperson for AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center.
As of Sunday evening, no further information on the victims at the trauma unit was available, by request of the families.
Authorities said the balcony at 222 E. Baker Ave. collapsed around 6 p.m. Twelve people — 10 adults and two children — involved in the incident were members of the Branchville department and their families, according to Sussex County Fire Marshal Virgil Rome.
None of the injuries to the firefighters or their families were life-threatening, Rome said, and all but one had been released from local hospitals by noon Sunday. Frato said the final person injured was scheduled to be released later Sunday.
“On behalf of the Branchville Hose Company #1, we would like to express our sincere gratitude for the overwhelming support we have received after the incident that had taken place in Wildwood last night,” according to a Facebook post by the company. “At this time we have several members who are injured and will have a road of recovery after this traumatic experience. As a group, we are thankful we are all alive and held together as one.”
The collapse brought out first responders the weekend of the New Jersey Firemen’s Association Convention, just hours after its parade through the Wildwoods. Firetrucks from as far north as Millstone Township in Monmouth County were around the scene.
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Speigel said the building is a seven-unit condo. According to a news release Sunday, the second- and third-story front decks “suffered a complete ‘pancake’ type collapse, trapping multiple people.”
The fire department and the city’s Construction Office are working with the building owners, engineers and contractors to properly secure a hip-roof that is currently unsupported due to the collapse, according to Speigel’s release.
As of 3 p.m. Sunday, the area around the condo had been taped off, but the unsecured hip-roof had not been addressed.
Joann Debito, a resident of the Newport Hotel across the street, said Saturday she saw the collapse.
“I was sitting on the deck up there, and I heard this noise, so I turned and looked and saw the whole thing caving in,” Debito said. “I saw two women running and screaming. It was horrible.”
One witness who owns a home on Baker Avenue a block away from the accident said first responders were on the scene until at least 1 a.m. The witness, who asked not to be identified, said he heard a woman screaming “Help,” moments after a loud crash.
Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr., whose son Ernie Troiano III is deputy fire chief, said the emergency response was “phenomenal,” noting that all of the people involved in the collapse were freed within an hour.
Having a city full of trained first responders in town for a convention helped matters, Troiano said, but added that the visitors allowed city and county officials to do their jobs.
“As it always is, first responders are always about taking care of everybody else,” Troiano said Sunday. “But, I want to thank (the visiting first responders) for initially helping and then stepping aside and letting those services that came to handle the situation back in.”
In addition to Wildwood Fire Department, the following fire departments responded to the scene: North Wildwood, Ocean City, Cape May City, Wildwood Crest, West Wildwood, Stone Harbor, Rio Grande, Villas and Erma. EMS crews who responded included: Wildwood Crest, Cape May County, Lower Township, Middle Township and Atlantic Care Paramedics. Police departments who assisted on scene: Wildwood, North Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, Cape May County Regional Urban Search Team (R.U.S.T.) and New Jersey Task Force 1 — Urban Search and Rescue Team (Incident Support Unit).
The Associated Press contributed to this story.